Looking at Delford Drake III on his 15th birthday, you would never guess he had battled for his life to see that day, although, if you knew the family, you knew that each of his namesakes had fought until they could fight no more, and died heroes.
Delford Drake Sr., in 1974, had saved the lives of ten of his neighbors at the Tinyville Massacre. The field where it had happened was going to be named after him after the Black community with the reinforcement of Covid-19 had kept Tinyville, VA from putting up some tourist attraction over it.
Captain Delford Drake Jr., in 2018, had survived an attack on his squad and gone back to save more of his men, despite being mortally wounded. He had lived to call home and say goodbye to his wife and son, a bit more than his father had been able to do in his case.
“Keep advancing the ball, Dell,” he had said to his son. “Take care of your mom, and yourself, and don't let me see you in Heaven less than a very old man having lived a full, holy, powerful life. Keep advancing the ball.”
Captain Drake knew his son, and how completely devastated he would be … and how he would need to remember how his father had said to live.
Delford Drake III, just 12 years old then, had considered suicide within the first six months – to check online, children like him were doing it for much less.
“I'm the child and grandchild of heroes, but neither of them are here to help me become a man – it's not fair!”
He could not articulate that until age 14, but, it was everywhere, in every interaction in Lofton County – people tried to comfort his mom and him all over the Black community, and it just drove the knife into his heart, for they kept telling him about the wonders of a father and grandfather he could never have again.
The teachers in the county public school absolutely did not care about Dell's feelings, and neither did the leaders of Tinyville – and then the smack hit the fan in Lofton County as a whole in the summer of 2019 when its corrupt police had been exposed and in the fall of 2019 when J. Oscar Rett, community advocate, was found hung on the biggest tree in the field Tinyville wanted to pave over.
However, the crisis around Mr. Rett's death provided a turning point for Dell. Mr. Rett had been dating his mother for a while, and even though that had not worked out, and even though Dell was glad about that, he saw how Mr. Rett's death devastated his mother all over again – and so, Dell at last put suicide firmly from his mind.
Mrs. Drake made a move at that time that helped; her brother James Varick IV opened up his home to her, and she and Dell moved in with Mr. and Mrs. Varick. Thus Dell gained daily life with a loving uncle who also was connected with all kinds of strong, good Black men who were building for the next generation.
“Look, Dell,” his best friend Thomas Stepforth III said, “My grandfather grew up in Lofton County, and he was poor, so he knows how it is and what the men have got to do. We're going to get what we need now to become strong men and heroes to our community – my dad and others are going to be able to build the programs and fund them for us because Grandpa ain't poor no more! Thomas Stepforth Sr. is a whole billionaire – so whatever you're supposed to do and be, we're all gonna get the tools we need, and besides that, he's my grandfather and you're my best friend and I can ask him for anything I want! Just hang on, Dell – the people at the school don't think you're going to make it through high school, but I know you're smart and you can do this! Just hang on!”
Tom “T3” Stepforth was a hero too, at least to Dell. So too his father, Major Thomas Stepforth Sr., who opened the Stepforth Study Hall, a center for after school programs and independent study for Black boys ages 12-18. Dell went on independent study and began working with the major's team of supportive men and women – and, his grades shot right back up to dean's list level, just as they had been before his father's death.
But, still, Dell had taken something else from what T3 had told him – ask for what you want. It was the third anniversary of his father's death when he got down on his knees in tears to ask the Lord for what he wanted – what he needed!
Dell was aware of the struggles of his generation of young Black boys … he knew that to survive and stay free, by comparison to what was happening in a lot of his generation, was progress, but it wasn't enough. Captain Drake, his father, had demanded more of him with his last breaths.
“Keep advancing the ball, Dell. Take care of your mom, and yourself, and don't let me see you in Heaven less than a very old man having lived a full, holy, powerful life. Keep advancing the ball.”
“I need a coach, Lord,” Dell prayed. “I know You're not going to send Dad back, and I love my Uncle James and Major Stepforth, and Pop-Pop Stepforth, but I need a coach. I've got the name of two heroes on me. I can't carry it right without someone to have time to help me – not just everybody, but me.”
While he was praying, Major Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois and his family were getting settled into Lofton County. The Stepforth and Dubois families were friends, so, in the summer, Major Dubois began working with the Stepforth Study Hall's summer programming on Zoom.
But first, socially distanced introductions on Delford Drake Field … and of course Major Dubois was honored to meet Delford Drake III.
Dell just knew… the strong, calm military bearing in front of the warm, caring paternal spirit … his prayer had been answered, for Major Dubois was going to be providing advanced tutoring and guidance for the top students at the Stepforth Study Hall who were thinking of going into advanced fields Black boys were not often seen in.
Dell declared for everything he could think of, and his grades were already where they needed to be to have access.
“I don't know if you want to try to do all that, Dell, although you are smart enough,” his Uncle James said. “But, Major Dubois will help you sort it all out.”
That was the whole point – and somehow, Major Dubois knew it.
“So, you have the name of two heroes and you definitely have the drive and determination – and we will look into each of the fields of study, career, and business you are thinking of going into, because this community, and the world at large, needs men to really find out what God has for them to do and be. You don't have to figure it out alone. I'm here for you.”
Dell had waited three years to hear that, and almost broke down and cried, but pulled himself together … anybody could talk big, but … but Major Dubois showed up three times a week for their Zoom calls, and put Dell into a time slot when there was nobody coming after him.
“I'm retired, Dell, at age 52, and in excellent health – I've got time to wear you out. You want to keep going? Let's do it.”
Captain Drake would have been 50, that year, and would have been retired, and would have had that kind of time.
Mrs. Hettie Drake, WNBA Hall of Famer, retired, age 44, noted the change in her only child after a month – the steadiness of Captain Drake at last blossomed in her son. Dell had stabilized, completely – not that they did not still attend grief counseling sessions for veterans' widows and children, but Dell's personal struggle had ended in victory, just in time for his 15th birthday in late August of 2020.
“I'm going to be all right now, Mom,” he said to her that day. “I miss Dad, and I still cry a lot about it, but he said I have to live to be a very old man and live a holy and powerful life, and that's just what I'm going to do, and that's that. God has given me everything and everyone I need to make it, starting with you.”
The two shared an embrace and wept, but that would be the last great crying session. The gap now had been crossed for both of them.